At the beginning of February 2012, Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill was resurrected in Parliament. After its initial conception in 2009, an international plea from activists and governments forced the Ugandan government to shelve the discriminatory bill, with some donors even threatening to drop aid to Uganda if it did not comply. As a result, the bill was curbed in August 2011. According to politician David Bahati, who recently re-introduced the bill, it no longer contains a provision for the death penalty and proposes reduced prison sentences for homosexual acts instead of a life sentence.

With impeccable timing, filmmakers Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright came to the Berlinale International Film Festival with Call Me Kuchu, a moving and urgent portrait of the LGBT community in Uganda and their daring struggle to be themselves – and stay alive – in an ultra conservative and violent climate for gays. The film took second place for the Audience Award in the Panorama Best Documentary Competition and won the festival’s Teddy Award for Best Documentary for films related to LGBT1 topics.

At the center of the struggle in Call Me Kuchu is David Kato, a charismatic homosexual who is the only publicly gay rights activist in Uganda and the first in his community to come out. In an unmarked office on the outskirts of Kampala, Kato labors to repeal Uganda’s homophobic laws and liberate his fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women, or kuchus, as they’re called. But for his cause he must face the consequences – watching his back at all times and even sleeping with a weapon by his side.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill was inspired by American evangelicals who christened Uganda ‘ground zero’ in their war on the ‘homosexual agenda.’ Including Uganda, 37 other countries in Africa deem homosexuality illegal. As it stands now, 95 percent of the Ugandan population is against homosexuality and would support a life sentence for gays.
The Church has even championed hangings and, along with the government, is promoting ideas that gays are out to sodomize their children. One of Uganda’s tabloid newspapers, Rolling Stone, is fiercely pursuing gays by singling out suspected homosexuals – with photos and the names of individuals – and asking their readership to immediately report them to the authorities. The result is gays going deeper into hiding, forced into a type of house arrest. If the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is passed, anybody who knows of a homosexual must report him or her within 2 hours or face three years in prison. A running thread throughout the film is a court case against Rolling Stone for publishing photos of David Kato, calling for his execution. In a surprising conclusion, the court ruled in favor of Kato and the LGBT community.
Tragically, in January 2011 shortly after the victory of the lawsuit, David Kato was found bludgeoned to death in his home. His murder sent shockwaves to the frontlines of the international movements for the LGBT communities, crowning Kato a martyr in their struggle to battle the oppression.

The co-directors were in the midst of making the documentary at the time of Kato’s death and continued rolling to report on the state of Kato’s community. In an especially difficult scene, anti-gay protestors hijack Kato’s funeral while his friends and family are in the midst of mourning. What ensues is a painful battle of rest in peace vs. burn in hell.

We also meet many of Kato’s inner circle: his best friend Naome, a fellow human rights activist, Kato’s bishop Christopher Senyonjo, the only priest who openly supports the homosexual lifestyle, Cong Jones, who fears he might be the next victim, and Stosh, a young lesbian who was raped and consequently infected with HIV.

Parada, written and directed by Srđan Dragojević

Over in Serbia, the anti-homosexuality sentiment continues to reach a boiling point, but the LGBT community did manage to have one small victory for their team, even if it’s simply cinema. Parada, written and directed by Srđan Dragojević, is the most successful co-production of the ex-Yugoslavian countries since the war. Winning the Audience Award in the Panorama section, Parada tells the story of a life-saving operation on a gangster’s pitbull that brings together two very different worlds: homophobia meets overblown gender display as a number of former foes – Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovo-Albanians and Croatian war veterans – find themselves obliged to form a tenuous bond with a bunch of gay activists. The motley crew is sent on an impossible suicide mission to hold a gay pride parade against an onslaught of nationalists and neo-Nazis.

Call Me Kuchu shows the urgency of addressing the oppression of human rights that is occurring in Uganda. As a film, the least it can do is encourage other media to examine the potential of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill – a frighteningly real prospect that Ugandans will be imprisoned for their sexual orientation and possibly killed. It’s a flawless work, both as a film and as a journalistic work, which measures the temperature of hate, on the part of Church and state, against the survival tactics of the LGBT community.

While Parada plays on clichés and stereotypes, the fact that it was even made is a feat in itself. The Serbian capital of Belgrade (well, the entire country, in fact) is teeming with homophobia, from nationalists and the Orthodox Church, which does not appear to be waning.
For a decade, gays and their supporters have struggled to fight for their rights, only to be met with violence from ultra-nationalists. Only since 1994 has homosexuality been legal in Serbia. In 2001, the first attempt to have a gay pride parade took place, but was canceled due to violent threats; the same happened again in 2009. In 2010, with the support of 6000 police officers, another attempt was made. The day before it was scheduled, a “family march” from the Orthodox Church took place, galvanizing thousands of anti-gay protesters in the streets of Belgrade. The parade carried on regardless, with a mere 600 protesters coming out to demonstrate their support of homosexuality. Of those who showed up, only 20% were gay. And in October 2011, the efforts of a second successful parade was met again with cancellation, only 24 hours before it was to take place.

Faced with a failed history of ‘Pride’, it’s remarkable and reassuring that Parada fared exceedingly well during its theatrical release last autumn in the former Yugoslavian countries. But while Serbia struggles to come into the 21st century, Germany has been considered a tolerant nation for decades, with minimal discrimination towards gays, both on the streets and in Parliament. Legal recognition of same-sex couples allows them the same basic rights and obligations as marriage. Even German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is openly gay.

Of course, it wasn’t always roses. Back in the times of the German Democratic Republic, being gay meant hiding who you were. In Among Men – Gay in East Germany, also screened in Panorama, co-directors Markus Stein and Ringo Rösener address the question of how gay men lived and could live their lives under ‘real socialism.’ According to the GDR ideology, homosexuality was a remnant of bourgeois decadent morality and harmful to a socialist society.
November 9, 1989 was to mark an historical date in gay GDR history – the premiere of the first East German homosexual-themed film, Coming Out. Instead, a more monumental event would occur the very same night – the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seemed the collapse of socialism would rob the GDR gay community of its actual ‘coming out.’
Although quietly engaging in moments with personal depth and humorous anecdotes, Among Men fails to show the gay struggle, or lifestyle, in a singular light within a straight socialist society. Is it not true that gays of the 70s and 80s in West Germany were also suffering a kind of oppression that sent them underground?  It is interesting that the discrimination towards gays during the GDR pales in comparison to the outlandish and public violence towards gays in Serbia today.
It appears that the socialist regime under Erich Hoenecker was not particularly more repressive towards gays than in other places in the Western world at that time. In fact, anyone, gay or straight, with a slightly different attitude towards the regime faced isolation and violent punishment. Furthermore, homosexuality had not been punished since the 1950s and, as one interviewee admits in the film, there was no persecution against gays in the GDR. One of the ‘queerest’ tactics of the Stasi was to actually send out Romeos into the crowds, who would then ‘make a move’ on a suspected homosexual to see how far he would go, thus collecting data for his file.

Through interviews with six East German men – among them, Eduard Stapel, an academic theologist who founded a GDR-wide homosexual association, Frank Schäfer, a barber and shrewd individualist, Jürgen, a humble painter – we come to understand their practices and their social codes. Nowadays, gay men openly nurture their relationships but of course, this was not always the case. Among Men allows the safe space for these men, now in their golden years, to finally ‘come out’ of the Iron Closet and tell the story of their struggle to come to grips with their hidden desires. In that aim, the film is admirable.

Each interviewee explains how they were obliged to come to terms with their homosexuality alone, in the shadows. In the cases of both Uganda and Serbia, such isolation is still the norm. But with more social activism, more media and individual attention paid, hopefully it won’t be for too much longer.
1 LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender.

Modern Times Review